For more than a century, advanced economies abided by the ‘bigger is better’ philosophy for electric power supply. The world built massive grids that connected power plants to homes and businesses via wires that traversed thousands of miles. As a result, the US grid, alone, now contains enough high-voltage transmission wire to circle the Earth six times over, making it what some describe as the world’s biggest machine.
The grid build-out served its purpose well; 84 percent of the global population now enjoys the benefits of electric power. But big grids have their limits. Most notably, they can be subject to domino-like failures. Damage to one part of the power grid can create an outage that cascades for miles, causing a blackout that affects millions of utility customers. Simple things can cause such failures; a squirrel gnawing on a wire or a tree falling on utility equipment during a storm. The power grid has demonstrated this vulnerability repeatedly in recent years. The Northeast US blackout of 2003, India’s blackout of 2012, Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Maria offer examples.
To overcome cascading outages, power system planners have begun to segment the grid – create small scale sections that can provide power independently when the larger grid fails. These segments are known as microgrids.
As a consequence of the above issue, and other major contributing factors such as cost of utility grid extension and customer requirements, a mindset shift has begun to occur. It’s become clear that it’s not necessary to rely on a utility or government entity to provide electricity. Rather, generation can be locally managed and dispatched and even communally owned to benefit its users. The result is a form of distributed generation that offers efficient energy management, security of supply, redundancy and back-up power to safeguard against outages.